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Complexity and the Cynefin Framework - learnings for AoH - AoPL

Copied over from the Facebook group, March 2015:

Really interesting keynote by Dave Snowden on Complexity and the Cynfin Framework - Definitely challenges some of the methodological frames that often show up in AoH practice around innovation. I am curious to hear people's reflections and how it informs your praxis?


Michael Donnelly The Cynefin Framework is simple and powerful - like the best models always are. He is quite scathing about some of the approaches and I think this is as much about the motivation of those buying or practising as the methodologies themselves. In the right place they are great but they are not panacea. the right tool for the right job and sometimes 100% emergence is not the right tool when system boundaries are present and known or intuited.


Alexander Craig I agree with you Michael. I think he makes some important points around being careful about layering the language of complexity over the top of process design that is actually linear as you move towards taking action in a system - I notice that pattern show up quite a bit. I also appreciate his reflection that the real value being in creating process that are about movement between the different states.

My experience is that its easy to fall into subtle biased worldview that moving towards complicated and simple states and approaches that are more on the order and control side of the chaordic path model is 'bad'.

I also think there is lots of very interesting stuff in there around prototyping a set of different actions based on an assessment of their coherence and then the quantitative dimensions of the sensing/harvesting process for how we gather and make sense of data from prototyping actions to inform the next iteration of a process. I haven't really experienced much of that understanding being woven into the convergence phases in AoH practice and I am really curious about if and how that informs peoples design and practice in the field?


Ria Baeck Alexander Craig - how would you describe that kind of understanding - for the rest of us??? (maybe this is your gift to the global network?)


Kathy Jourdain This is a pretty definitive statement and it is usually good to take care with definitive statements. Does conflict always need to be present for innovation? Is OS always about driving consensus and agreement? Are there not other ways to bring in diversity?


Alexander Craig Ria Baeck - In this case the approach Snowden advocates for acting in complexity is, because complexity is inherently evolutionary and emergent and you can't know the right approach to take to address a challenge based simply on whats worked before, to 'probe - sense - respond'.

In his practice, Probe is to conduct 3 to 7 parallel 'safe to fail' experiments that have coherence, rather than designing 1 or 2 'fail safe' actions to address a challenge. There are some interesting heuristics he offers that guide selecting the portfolio of experiments you work with. Sensing then is for each of those experiments to establish feedback mechanisms that allow you to sense the patterns emerging around each experiment as they impact in the system. Responding is then amplifying or dampening experiments based on the patterns they create. That's the gist, but there is way more detail in the talk that is important.

In relation to AoH'esk practice this approach is much more akin to the the prototyping paradigm used in the on-going 'lab' based process models being utilized by folk like Zaid and SocialLabs etc. Where as in my experience at AoH trainings, both as a participant and hosting team member, when moving towards action we tend to use processes like 'design for wiser action' which in essence take 1 idea for addressing a challenge and direct the energy of the design group towards developing that one action into a plan. This idea development in itself isn't a bad, I like the DfWA process and think it has a lot of value. But in the lens of Snowden's work, this approach is used to develop a singular action plan that seems much more akin to 'designing a fail safe action' rather than multiple safe to fail experiments. Pro Action Cafe can easily follow the same pattern. Which, coming back to the process challenge of working with complexity, assumes you know what action will work in the system before you do it.

I haven't been in a AoH space where we intentionally encourage people to develop different parallel actions to run alongside each other, watch what works and then amplify it. I am curious if other people are doing that? I suspect its not to hard to still use DfWA and Proaction intentionally to develop multiple prototype experiments. Personally, I don't know in detail how to support people to identify and establish appropriate feedback mechanisms on actions/experiments in complex environments that give good decision making data for whether you should amplify or dampen - I am very curious to learn more about this.

The deeper inquiry I am in is that we, including myself, often use the framing of 'complexity' and 'emergence' to advocate using 'aoh'esk approaches and participatory methods - so I am trying to learn and deepen my own understanding around the thinking and practice that sits behind where that language comes from. Cynefin is one of the models I have used and have seen used many times to make the case around complexity (the chaordic path is another), so I wanted to learn more. I have found it really stimulating listening to Snowden's lectures, especially because some of what he offers critiques some of the 'aoh'esk approach - he is pretty scathing of Applicative inquiry. This doesn't mean he is right, or I fully agree, but I think dissent is valuable to stimulate reflection and learning because it challenges me to review my assumptions - hence also wanting to offer that into this group and see what kind of conversation that invited.

Growing up in Northern Ireland and being involved for many years in working to try and reweave community in different forms amidst the conflict there, I have been in lots of spaces of beautiful and transformational conversation and relational reconnection in isolated containers that have been nothing short of profound. I have also many times seen those new relational bridges, that held space open for new possibilities to arise for how we be together, crushed by moving back into the dominant system with no pathways to change the broader system (in the language of power and love - sentimental and anemic love) or ripped apart again by the new all too human conflict and power dynamics that arises from people moving into converging processes towards a few untested actions. Given this, I am very interested in approaches that support communities and organizations to take wiser action together in complex systems - I know that work really matters.

Kathy Jourdain - I hear you, it is very important to be careful with definitive statements and so to in quoting them and taking them out of their broader context - as I did with this quote. Snowden is being intentionally provocative with that statement, he frames that he will do that at the beginning of the talk. And I guess, in some ways, so was I in pulling out that quote - I figured it might create a response, and so I offered it because I really am curious about peoples unfolding understanding and practice in these areas. What are your thoughts and experience on the questions you offered above? I am also curious if you watched the talk and if so what your reflections are?


Michael Donnelly Alexander Craig thanks for more great opinions on this. There is a simple insight to Snowden's valuing prototyping (a la Scrum or agile) and it is that it allows participants to understand that there is not a breakthrough moment of convergence, after which everything falls into place as it always should have been. But rather, there is an evolution to be undertaken. The safe to fail allows for that evolution to take place - its like a merging of action planning and implementation. That transition has always seemed the most difficult with groups I worked with - having a great collective experience and then back to porridge and day to day reality that quickly dissipates the enthusiasm generated in the group. There are different ways that people have tried to describe this transition and the split has been between those arguing for big bang transformation, and those saying there's no point - you have to create the new and let the old die (such as creative destruction).


Alexander Craig If you are interested here is another talk and panel discussion at a USAID conference in 2014. There's an interesting conversation about system thinking approaches and complexity approaches:


Alexander Craig And heres Peter Senge at the same conference:


Jeff Aitken I know this is largely about the process after an open space for example. The 'now what.' But there is a common misconception in here. The law is not conflict avoidance. But it supports people to negotiate their own rhythm around conflict engagement. If you are not learning or contributing you might move. But when you are attracted by your passionate concerns you will likely stay even in a confrontational exchange. We're not locking the doors in any process I assume. Curious about that one piece.


Chris Corrigan at our workshop in London Dave did his rant about Open Space and claimed it was invented by two Canadians. i corrected him. and it made me realize that perhaps his experiences in Open Space have been poor ones, and perhaps he wasn't aware of how much theory Harrison Owen has actually connected to the process. (In fact he didn't even know who Harrison was when I corrected him, but that's fine...not everybody knows everything). Harrison can be a folksy kind of grandfather figure from time to time, but he has studied complexity and self-organization for a long time, and can hold his own just fine. I think Dave has experienced Open Space in Agile software circles mostly, and I don't know how it is used there. I have only ever heard Dave Snowden call Open Space a "consensus building" method. That is simply not my experience at all. But having listened to him, I can see how he might hold the views he holds, but even he will say, as he does above, that - like everything - it has it's applications. Of course it is a contextual method. All methods are.
i have used open space several times within organizational settings to create sets of parallel safe to fail probes, explicitly as part of using Cynefin. Lots of amazing stuff has emerged out of those probes, including an entirely indigenous school in Prince George, BC. So I know a little about deploying this method in complex systems. Open Space is not the enemy of innovation. Bad practice is the enemy of innovation.

I find Dave's work immensely valuable. He doesn't like what he has experienced of Open Space. That doesnt bother me. And I've learned a lot by taking up his challenge to understand from a theory basis, why what I do works, in line with complexity and cognitive theory. He calls for us to develop good praxis and I agree. We should not be afraid of theory, and we should never rest on our laurels as practitioners

I'll probably write up a post on this topic and invite him into a debate. but how about i leave us all with a challenge?

if it bothers you that Dave Snowden says that Open Space is the enemy of innovation i challenge us to see where he might be right. and i also challenge us to provide good theory about why he might be wrong. It's an excellent exercise to respond well to provocation.


Caitlin M Frost Great conversation and lots to think about. To add to the mix I have been part of many a well hosted open space where people stay in heated conversations and don't use the law of two feet to avoid. I have actually seen people use the law of two feet to move toward a heated and juicy conversation they have passion for....


Chris Corrigan Jeff, I agree with you around conflict engagement. the Law of Two Feet actually provides a mechanisms for people to stay engaged rather than fleeing. Of course you always have the ability to leave a conflict in any process, unless you're locked in the room.


Alexander Craig Great to hear your thoughts Caitlin and Chris. Love your challenge Chris, thanks for that, and its somehow unsurprising to hear that Daves perspective on Open Space may have arisen from a poor experience and not knowing its roots. As you say, this is a nice invitation to sharpen our praxis on both ends. I did a six day training in Open Space Technology back in 2008 in Belfast with a crew from Germany called BOSCOP a few years before I bumped into the AoH community. It blew my mind at the time. You could say the training was by the book based on a 3 day model (2 days conversation, 1 days action planning), the team had worked with Harrison closely, and a lot of the underlying teaching was on complexity and self organization. Whats interesting is that I think a lot of what Dave Snowden is offering matches very well with that form of Open Space. Relating to Daves conflict avoidance critique, even though I ran a bunch of 3 day Open Spaces in Northern Ireland on a variety of themes relating to conflict I am not sure I have enough of a case to claim otherwise in regard to the efficacy of the actions produced. The Open Space were one off events rather that on going labs and so its virtually impossible to track the impact of the actions that came out of it after people left. The teaching there for me is about the importance of ongoing practice and reflection in the same system to really have a sense of whats happening. What I do know is that in his books 'Wave Rider' and particularly in 'Practice of Peace' Harrison Owen talks pretty extensively his use of Open Space on issues of conflict. If I remember right one of his reflections was that if the Open Space is over enough time the Law of Two Feet allows the group to 'breath' by being able to walk away from excessive tension when its to 'hot' and that if the issue really matters people will have the courage to either rejoin the conversation or bring it up again in another session - there is a good story about working with an Israeli and Palestinian group in this form in the book. This 'breathing' also makes sense biologically in terms of hot emotive conversation as part of what happens physiologically when people get angry is that the amygdala in the brain swells with blood and your rational function becomes impaired - this literally makes it hard to listen to any other point of view - the only thing really you can do to calm the amygdala is slow your breathing and reduce your heart rate, which normally means stepping away from the situation that makes you angry. All that being said, I think the point Snowdon is trying to make is about the role of conflict and criticism in the process of developing robust actions/experiments. They use a practice called 'Ritual Dissent' for this purpose which seeks to depersonalizes the criticism/conflict around the action and uses it to sharpen the coherence of the action. All interesting stuff. Heres an video of Harrison Owen talking about complex systems that maybe Dave Snowden would enjoy...


Chris Corrigan Alexander: Awesome. I'm also a long time Open Space facilitator and am close to Harrison and Michael Pannwitz, who stewards the BOSCOP community. So yes, for alomost 20 years I've done almost everyone one can imagine with Open Space and I'm hard to surprise.
What is interesting to me about conflict in OS is that the conflict happens in nested containers. Think of a meeting held in one big room. Altogether in that room you have a co-ceated agenda, you have small groups happening in different parts of the room and you have food. When a conflict arises in a small group, you can stay in it or leave, but you are still contained in the larger room, in the space which I as facilitator am holding. You can get a coffee, go look at the wall, have a butterfly conversation, but YOU ARE STILL IN THE ROOM. If you find some emotional resources, you can go back, or you might find yourself working on another topic in another place with the person you were previously in conflict with. It's an interesting dynamic.

I think for really conflicted situations Open Space works well when you have the time. It allows people to dive in deeply with each other and really feel the tension, but alos allows for community to develop. 2.5 day Open Space events (ending in a safe-to-fail prototyping design) are amazing events. Using OST in too short a time frame means that people never get into that dynamic, and if that comes from a place of conflict avoidance, that's not good. In fact Dave's own process, Ritual Dissent, can be a way to accelerate the necessary "safe to fail" conflict that makes ideas more resilient.


Nancy White I REALLY wish this conversation was in a container that Dave has visibility/access to. We've had small conversations around this a few times, but never the time/space to really get into it. And it is an important conversation.


Ursula Hillbrand WHAT a beautiful synchronicity. So interesting, I came across and posted the video two days ago on my own timeline. Although Dave Snowden formulates his observation as a rather absolute statement, and I take it, after the introduction in his keynote, that this is how he chooses to operate in order to provoke and to make people really think in order to shift things. That's why I started to do exactly that, along with you mates. And yes, sometimes Ritual Dissent is perhaps the better option! It all depends what the aim is. We once had a Ritual Dissent built into an Open Space as a session, and it was exactly to offer to those people, who we knew might need it, an area of confrontation. Remember Rainer V. Leoprechting? The integral politics Congress some three years ago...It turned out very nicely, and elegant solution I can highly recommend.


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Yes, so if you look up Ritual Dissent, I basically follow that process. However after two rounds of that I throw in a round of Ritual Contribution by asking people to only appreciate instead of criticise!

Sorry it took 2 years to reply!!!

Ria Baeck said:

could you say more about this - sounds really interesting!


Bhavesh Patel said:

P.S. I have started using a few rounds of ritual dissent followed by a round of appreciative inquiry when facilitating probe/prototype development.

Still appreciated Bhavesh!!!

WOW, real time and digital time...

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